Ontario woman alleges high school running coach sexually assaulted her as a teen in $3M lawsuit
Both teacher and Durham District School Board deny allegations
An Uxbridge, Ont., woman has launched a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against her former running coach and the Durham District School Board, alleging she was subjected to years of sexual assault and abuse at the hands of a teacher.
The teacher, Edward LaRocque, denies the allegations, and the school board, which is located about 65 kilometres east of Toronto, denies any liability connected to the allegations.
Now 25, Julia Kearley said she feels it's the right time for her to speak out.
"I'm at a place where I want accountability," she told CBC News. "I don't want to carry the shame anymore."
Kearley has thus far chosen not to go to police, so the matter has not been investigated and no criminal charges have been laid. None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been proven in court.
A statement of defence filed by LaRocque's lawyers denies the allegations and asks that the lawsuit be dismissed. Lawyer Andrew Max told CBC News in an email that the "matter is before the court and Mr. LaRocque will be responding to these allegations there."
Also at issue is a separate, third-party claim from the school board filed against the plaintiff's mother, which the board says was launched by its insurer without its knowledge. It alleges she is in part responsible for any abuse by failing to protect her daughter "in accordance with her parental/guardianship responsibility" — something Kearley's mother denies.
According to a statement of claim, Kearley first encountered LaRocque in 2011 when she started attending Uxbridge Secondary School in Grade 9. She was 14 at the time, while LaRocque, the coach of the school's cross-country and track and field teams, was in his late 30s.
Kearley joined the cross-country team later that year. The lawsuit alleges LaRocque soon started grooming her.
"From the start, LaRocque complimented Julia and told her how talented she was," the statement of claim reads. At LaRocque's suggestion, according to the lawsuit, Kearley also joined the Greater Uxbridge Road Runners club outside of school — which led to her having one-on-one practices with LaRocque and him driving her to practices and competitions.
The lawsuit alleges that over a period of months, LaRoque and Kearley spent an increasing amount of time together, and they texted back and forth. The lawsuit alleges the text messages initially related to running but quickly turned into exchanges about other topics.
"I really truly thought, especially Grade 9, Grade 10, that this was someone who really cared about me, and I really cared about him," Kearley said in an interview.
Mental health struggles
By the time Kearley was in Grade 10, the statement of claim alleges, LaRocque began isolating her from family and friends, as well as making "comments to Julia about her body, sending her messages with pictures of women in minimal clothing and telling Julia that the women in the photos had nice bodies and that Julia should aspire to be like them."
The lawsuit states that more overt sexual abuse started happening when Kearley was in Grade 11. At the time, she was starting to receive scholarship offers from schools in the U.S. and Canada, but she had to take some time off from running due to an injury.
"Julia expressed to LaRocque that she was struggling psychologically because she was not running," the lawsuit alleges about the time period around January 2014. "She told him she was having suicidal thoughts and feeling very isolated."
At the time, according to allegations contained in the court documents, LaRocque began telling Kearley that it seemed like she had been previously abused or assaulted and insisted she was repressing memories of such an experience.
He allegedly told her that he "loved her like a father" and would help her become more comfortable around older men. That process included the two "hugging" in bed without clothes on to "mimic what the sexual abuse was like," according to the lawsuit.
"Julia complied with LaRocque's instructions due to LaRocque's position of trust, power and authority over her as a school teacher and her coach," the statement of claim reads.
"Slowly kind of lines blurred, and that was when the sexual assaults began," Kearley told CBC News.
Contact allegedly persisted until 2017
The lawsuit alleges LaRocque kissed Kearley for the first time in the spring of 2014, and he first had sex with her around May of 2014 when she was 16 — her first time having sex with anyone.
Kearley's lawyers allege LaRocque continued to regularly have sex with her after that and "coerced Julia into sending naked and sexual images and videos of herself to him via text message."
The statement of claim also alleges LaRocque would sometimes drive Kearley to his house in Ajax, Ont., where they would stay overnight.
"Julia usually lied to her parents on those occasions and told them she was staying at her friend's house for the weekend," the lawsuit reads.
Kearley told CBC News that LaRocque tried to make what was happening seem like a "secret relationship" — something that left her feeling extremely emotional and confused as a teenager.
"He was very controlling — very controlling of my life,' she said.
"At that point, I'm a child … I don't know what to do about it."
The lawsuit alleges LaRocque exerted control over Kearley for years. She left Uxbridge in 2015 to attend college in New York state, but the two remained in contact.
She first tried to get away from the situation in the fall of 2015, according to the lawsuit, but was not able to successfully break off contact until 2017.
"It took a long time to actually get out of it," she told CBC News.
"I was falling apart because of it. It was a really dark time trying to get away and starting to realize how abusive it actually was."
Lawsuit seeks damages from coach, school board
Kearley's legal claim seeks $2 million in general and aggravated damages, plus $1 million in special damages, split between both LaRocque and the school board.
The Durham District School Board said in a statement that it first learned of the allegations when it was served with the statement of claim and has since contacted Durham police and the Children's Aid Society.
The board also said LaRocque has been "removed from [his] duties" amidst an ongoing investigation.
"We are not aware of any further allegations involving other students at this time and encourage anyone with information to come forward to police," the statement reads.
"The Durham District School Board takes it seriously when a person in a position of trust and authority allegedly abuses that trust."
The board's statement of defence first denies that any abuse took place — but continues to say that if it did, the board had no knowledge of the alleged abuse and says it is not liable for anything LaRocque may have done.
But a third-party claim filed on behalf of the school board says some responsibility should lie with Kearley's mother, alleging her "conduct fell below the standard of a reasonable parent/guardian in the circumstances."
In a statement of defence, Kearley's mother, Stacy, denied that allegation, saying she believed LaRocque's relationship with her daughter was appropriate for a teacher and student, or coach and athlete.
"At all material times, Stacy acted and conducted herself as a reasonable and ordinary parent/guardian with respect to [her daughter]," the statement reads. "At no time did she fall below the standard of care of a reasonable parent/guardian."
When asked about the third-party proceedings, a spokesperson for the board said its insurance company, the Ontario School Boards' Insurance Exchange, has carriage of the matter and initiated the claim without the board's knowledge.
Spokesperson Robert Cerjanec said the board has asked the insurance company to discontinue the claim against Kearley's mother. The insurance company did not respond to a request for comment.
"It takes courage for victims of abuse to speak up and we feel that this suit by the insurance company could be a deterrent in the future for families coming forward," Cerjanec said.
Repairing a relationship with running
Kearley told CBC News she has not gone to police with her allegations, though she is not ruling out doing so in the future. She said she wanted some measure of accountability but also to be protected.
"It's scary. You hear a lot of stories of victims coming forward and then just getting absolutely traumatized by the [criminal justice] system and I wasn't in a place emotionally, mentally where I think I could take that," she said.
"This feels right for me right now, and everyone's process is different."
Carly Kalish, executive director of Victim Services Toronto, echoed that sentiment.
"People need to come forward in their own time, at their own pace, and our response must be without assumption and without judgment," Kalish said.
While many things about the situation have affected her, Kearley said her relationship with running has been undeniably fractured.
When she first started training she adored lacing up her sneakers, fuelled by "a pure, innocent love for the sport."
"And then throughout high school it was something that was twisted. He used that so that he could manipulate me," she said.
Kearley said she was able to start repairing her relationship with the sport through college, but the ups and downs of the process persist.
"I still feel a pain of loss, like it's something he took from me."